Jax loved a good what-if, especially the kind that offered a bit of safe, imaginary action. Back in the days when she’d worked in a newsroom, carjackings had always started the round-the-office hypotheticals. What would you do if someone got in your car with a gun or a knife or a syringe of blood?
There was never a shortage of escape plans: grab the weapon in a surprise counterattack, leap out of the car when it slowed for a corner, slam a fist on the horn to attract attention. A muscled-up cadet once tried to demonstrate a Hollywood-style headbutt-and-run manoeuvre, as if anyone other than Tom Cruise could pull that off.
It was easy when you were sitting at a desk with a coffee and time to think about it. When it happened to Jax, she wasn’t that fast or clever.
She was waiting for traffic lights at the start of rush hour on a Monday afternoon when a man opened her front passenger door, got in and pointed a gun at her chest. Counterattacks didn’t cross her mind. Neither did the horn. She just felt the grief and doubt of the previous moment evaporate as she stared at him in silent, stunned incomprehension.
His first word was little more than a growl but it made her jump as though she’d been zapped by static electricity. She didn’t do as he ordered, though. Turning to the windscreen, she saw the light had changed to green and the queue of traffic ahead was pulling away, the first car was already into the right-hand turn. It was where she’d wanted to go five seconds earlier.
As though he’d got in the wrong car, she said, ‘This is the lane for the motorway.’
His reply was through clenched teeth. ‘That’s where you’re taking me.’
She glanced beyond the edge of the overpass to the six lanes that headed in and out of Sydney. No. No way. It was a 110-k zone down there. Hours and hours worth of high-speed driving all the way up the coast to Queensland.
Without a thought to the concept that she was in no position to tell a man with a gun anything, Jax jerked her chin at the bumper-to-bumper traffic barely moving in the lane on their left. ‘I’ll merge in there and stop past the lights. The tank is full. Take the car. Take everything and just leave me there.’ She swung her head, craning for a view over the boxes on the back seat, ignoring the blare of horns from the vehicles stacking up behind them, searching for a gap she could merge into.
‘Drive down the fucking ramp.’
The terse order was laced with impatience and, for the first time, a buzz of fear edged into Jax’s incomprehension. But still, her brain refused to take note. It’s not a carjacking, it told her. Look at him. He was wearing nice trousers and a business shirt. His cuffs were rolled up and his collar unbuttoned like a politician on the hustings. In the silence of her hesitation, his mouth opened up like a cave and fat veins pulsed in his neck as his voice filled the car.
That was when it hit and the what-if escape plans crashed through her mind like they were being shouted through a loudhailer. Jump out. Hit the horn. Christ, she didn’t know how to headbutt. And now it was too late.Every other bastard was already blaring their impatience and if she leapt from the car it’d be right into the path of the vehicles pushing and shoving to get around her.
Slamming the gearstick into first, Jax found the accelerator and jerked forward . . . almost stalling, trying again, grinding the gears. Then the lights turned amber and her foot went for the brake.
‘No. Go. Go!’ he bellowed.
She felt the touch of hard, cold gunmetal on her ribs and understood – clearly, terrifyingly – that she was in all sorts of trouble. Lungs seizing, heart thumping, she finally did as she was told and drove, picking up speed in the turn, heading down the ramp to the wide ribbon of motorway.
‘What do you want?’ She meant to shout but it sounded like a wail.
‘Put your fucking foot down!’ he yelled.
She was just metres from the merging lane, slowing without realising. She didn’t want to be on the highway, stuck in the car with an angry man and a gun. She should’ve pulled over, should’ve got the hell out, should’ve . . . She hit the accelerator, wincing at the surge in speed and the van that swerved around her. Shit, she was going to kill herself before he could.
At least Zoe wasn’t in the car. Thank God for that. Thank God Zoe stayed with Tilda last night. That her aunt had rescued Jax all over again.
Or maybe rescue wasn’t the right word. ‘Are you going to hurt me?’
‘Don’t ask!’ he roared. ‘Don’t. Fucking. Ask.’
She ducked from the sound, fingers tight on the wheel, tears welling behind her sunglasses: shock and fear and what-the-fuck-happens-now. New tears joining the ones that had already dried on her lashes, that had been ready to splash down her cheeks in the second before he got in. Christ, crying wasn’t going to help. Crying was for grief and loss and the stuff that cut you open and laid you bare. Not this. Crying wasn’t going to put her daughter back in her arms.
‘Shut up. Shut the fuck up!’
Jax thought he meant her, thought she’d sobbed out loud, but then he slammed the radio with a fist. He missed the on-off switch and a woman’s voice cranked up to full volume.
‘No. No!’ he shouted, fingers scrabbling over buttons and dials.
Four o’clock news flicked to three beats of music then static then laughing then . . .
‘Make it stop!’ This time his roar was aimed at Jax, the gun centimetres from her temple.
Her hand snapped out and the radio fell silent. So did he. And Jax clung to the steering wheel, blood pounding in her ears, her eyes on the road, legs so rigid she could barely work the pedals.
Within minutes, the outskirts of Sydney dropped away and the speed limit climbed to its maximum. Cars flew past. A semitrailer rumbled along beside her. A tourist coach dwarfed her in its shadow. She was in the slow lane, hugging the verge. He’d told her to drive, not take on speeding traffic that might slam right into her if she stopped in a hurry. And she might have to – he had a gun.
Shit, Jax. Don’t cry. Just drive. And breathe or you’ll pass out.
She registered the stink coming off him then. The rank pong of old sweat underlaid with a sharper tang of fresh perspiration. It wafted over her on the air-conditioning, filling her nostrils and sitting on her skin like humidity.
The cool air also made her wish she’d worn something else today. Leggings and a singlet top were sensible choices for cleaning and packing and lugging boxes in the heat. Now she was aware of her exposed skin, the black straps of her sports bra, the hint of cleavage in her scooped neckline, the shape of her legs in the tight pants. Was he aware of them too?
Since taking off at the lights she’d been too scared to do more than glance fleetingly in his direction. When she had, her eyes had been drawn to the dull silver of the gun – still there, still pointed at her, the fist around it using the centre console for support. Now that the shouting had stopped, now that she was hurtling him down the motorway to God knew where, she wanted to get a better look at who was sitting beside her. And where his focus was aimed.
The passenger seat had been shunted back to keep a box behind it from sliding around. She couldn’t see him properly without making a big turn of her head, which might just make him shove the gun in her face again. She could hear him shifting about, though, huffing and grunting and murmuring to himself. Leaning into the padding at her back, she twisted a little and flicked her eyes across the car.
He was sitting almost sideways on the passenger seat, a shoulder pressed into the upholstery, face tense and angled towards the back window. When she snatched another glimpse, he was facing front, attention on the windscreen.
And he was nothing like the carjackers of her what-if’s. She’d imagined strung out junkies, bank robbers on the run, arseholes trying to take what other people worked for, maybe even rapists. Hoodies and balaclavas and pissed off threats. The man in her passenger seat wasn’t like any of that. His white shirt was crumpled and sweat-stained but good quality. His trousers were the kind of dark-grey fabric that belonged to a suit. He had a black leather belt and polished shoes. Office clothes minus the jacket and tie.
A little younger than her, maybe early thirties. Reasonably neat hair, fit. Not Jack Nicholson in psycho mode but Ben Affleck playing businessman-on-a-bad-day.
It was obviously a very bad day – and not just for her. As she glanced between him and the road, his head swung from front to back, chin lifting and dropping as though he was looking over and under. Maybe he was watching the traffic, maybe he was worried someone had seen him hijack her car – she hoped someone had – but it seemed to be more than agitated surveillance. Something else was keeping him in constant movement: shoulders shifting, feet shuffling, hands jerking . . . all with the pistol pointed at her.
It made her heart pound and her breath uneven and her eyes wet.
Come on, Jax. Don’t cry. Think.
She’d been numb for so long she wasn’t sure she knew how to think anymore. Twelve months, one week, three days. Before then, when she was whole, she’d written hundreds of stories for newspapers and magazines, had spent her life asking probing questions of interesting people. Her brain was a collection depot of weird facts and obscure pieces of information – polar bears have tantrums, razor blades are one of the most shoplifted supermarket items. Come on, she told herself, there had to be something in there that would help.
Right, hostage stories. She was a hostage, more or less, and she’d interviewed that negotiator guy: FBI, in Sydney for a conference. What had he said? Be observant, establish rapport, remind them you’re human – it’s harder to kill you when they know you as a person. Shit, she didn’t want to think about that but . . . Okay, maybe she could ask the guy a few questions. Maybe he’d calm down if she managed to do it without sounding like she was scared shitless. No more or less about that.
‘What do you want?’ she asked for a second time. It sounded a little less like wailing, a bit closer to hysteria.
His face swung around, dark eyes narrowing, his expression making her wonder what the odds were the gun wasn’t loaded.
‘What do I want?’ Not calm, not at all. It was a rebuke, some kind of are-you-serious? ‘You don’t want to know what I want. You don’t want to know anything I know. I don’t want to know. I can’t get rid of it now though, can I? Once it’s there, it’s there. And it’s right there.’ He curled a finger and jammed the knuckle to his temple, screwing back and forth like he was trying to grind something out.
Jax held on to the wheel, stared straight ahead. So he was a little unstable. Maybe a lot. Paranoid delusions or schizophrenia or a breakdown or . . . Did it matter what it was called? She wasn’t a psychologist, for God’s sake. She was a journalist. An out-of-work journalist. She’d only ever asked questions for a living. Maybe not so different from a psychologist – except a psychologist would probably know which questions would get her killed.
But she knew how to establish rapport. She’d been asking stuff since she could point and say, ‘What dat?’ Getting the best answers was all about rapport.
Not that it had helped in the past year. She’d asked plenty of questions and hadn’t got any answers, at least none that gave any sort of closure. She’d wondered more than once if she’d lost the knack of asking or whether it was her new reality she couldn’t accept.
Right now, she just hoped she could pull enough of her old, competent self together to find a way to talk to this guy without making him want to shoot her.
She watched him for a couple more seconds as he shuffled and swung his head back and forth. She took a breath, tried for calm and composed.
‘My name’s Miranda.’
His head stopped mid-swing and he eyed her suspiciously for two drawn-out seconds before resuming the arc that took his gaze out the rear window. No ranting, no waving the gun around. It was a start.
‘I was heading to Newcastle,’ she said.
He didn’t move, didn’t speak.
‘Where do you want to go?’
Head to the front.
Maybe he didn’t know where he wanted to go. Maybe he’d just wanted a car leaving Sydney. ‘Newcastle’s about an hour and fifteen from here,’ she said. At the speed she was going, it’d probably take a week.
‘The Central Coast is forty minutes away.’
‘Then there’s Wisemans Ferry in between. And Lake Macquarie – it’s not far from the motorway.’ Plenty of places to hide, if that’s what he was after. ‘There’s an exit for the vineyards, too.’
He didn’t say anything but the shuffling stopped. He pressed his shoulder into the seat, held on to his belt with one hand, the gun with the other, and stared at the road ahead.
‘Friends call me Jax,’ she tried again.
His eyes slid towards her.
They made her nervous so she kept her own on the road and kept talking. ‘When I was a kid, sometimes I used to hang out with my dad while he was working. People would say, “She’s Eustace Jack’s girl.” Then it became, “She’s Jack’s.” Then they’d just point and nod and say, “Jack’s.” I started spelling it with an “x” when I was in high school. J-a-x. Jax. It’s better than Mandy. You know, short for Miranda. I’m not a Mandy and, well, Jax sort of followed me around.’
She glanced at him again, wondering if her rambling was achieving anything. He was watching her, the gun still pointed her way, his face tight, the muscles on either side of his jaw beating in and out – but the edgy, agitated shifting was gone.
‘What about you?’ she asked.
He scrubbed his face with a hand, an exhausted, frustrated gesture, digging at his eyes, massaging his forehead. It seemed a good sign, a kind of loosening up.
‘What’s your name?’ she prompted.
The sound that came from him made the hair on her neck rise. A long, low hum behind pressed lips, something between keening and growling. Her fingers tightened on the wheel as it grew in volume, louder and coarser, until it finally burst from his mouth as a guttural roar. Shrinking away from him, arm pressed to the driver’s door, her foot hovered between the brake and accelerator.
‘My name is shit!’ he finally bellowed. ‘My name is totally fucked. It’s all fucked. Fucked and gone to hell. Blown up and coming back down in bits of bone and guts. That’s going to be me. I’m already dead. That’s my name now. That’s what they called me. That’s me. Nice to meet you. I’m Already Dead.’